Abuse is Horror II

Intense content warning: eating disorder, intimate partner violence, abuse, physical and psychological violence, rape and sexual violence, child sexual abuse, graphic murder

            Spoiler warnings (big time): Things Heard & Seen, The Power

            Recently I watched two movies that were excellent at portraying abuse in a nuanced way – how abusers manipulate and charm their way through exerting power and control over their intelligent and autonomous targets, how bystanders play a role by ignoring or excusing the red flags and abuse, and the different ways survivors or victims[1] claim their own resilience through fighting back in ways large and small. The movies diverged sharply, however, in their endings (this is a major spoiler post!): one leads up to a dramatic finale where you believe the abuser will get what’s coming to him and the survivor will escape but at the last minute it goes the opposite way for no apparent cinematic or thematic reason; the other really has you thinking the survivors are going to die at the hands of the smarmy abuser who has the respect of his peers – when they suddenly turn the tables on him, kill him with the help of a ghost, and escape. Guess which one I liked better?

            “Nowhere is home with you, George.”

            Things Heard & Seen (2021, directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini) is a movie about a white straight couple moving into, you guessed it, an apparently haunted house. Catherine is an art restorer with an illustrious career in Manhattan, whose husband George just received a professorship in very rural upstate NY (y’all know I grew up in rural upstate NY, so I loved the setting). Despite the warnings of friends around sacrificing her career for his, Catherine believes she owes it to George to move to upstate and abandon her life, friends, and career. Early on in the movie, we are shown Catherine’s eating disorder (she takes a bite of cake at George’s graduation party and then throws it back up).[2]

            Things are eerie almost immediately in Chosen, NY. There are parallel tracks of unsettling circumstances: the first, the seen, are happenings in the house that Catherine and her daughter (whose name I have no idea, this child was barely present in this movie despite being a plot device) see: lights dimming and brightening, a rocking chair rocking by itself, strange smells of car exhaust coming and going. When Catherine brings up weird occurrences to George, he dismisses them and tells her to stop going on about the house being haunted – which she actually didn’t name until much later. It’s *almost* like he knows something about the house he hasn’t told her.

            Meanwhile, as things in the house continue to escalate, another horror is revealed slowly to the audience: the heard, the abuse dynamics perpetrated by George that are at first subtle and then undeniable. George increasingly isolates Catherine, calling her crazy for every legitimate concern, and denies her every need and desire to fulfill his own. The abuse is so subtly portrayed at first I am having trouble recalling specific circumstances until the more intense and obviously violent behavior closer to the end of the movie: but that’s part of the problem with how we excuse abusers in this society, right? Everything is plausibly deniable, maybe just in the survivor’s head, until they are caught in such a web of power and control that even attempting to extricate themselves proves incredibly dangerous. It is well documented that just before leaving and when attempting to leave an abusive partner is the most dangerous time for survivors.

            Without listing every horrifying, controlling, gaslighting, belittling, violent behavior by George, suffice it to say I was impressed by how well the movie portrays an abuser. He was not, at least at first, obviously monstrous. I hated him immediately (but frankly I have a bit of a bias), but he was mostly just boorish and obnoxious. He immediately attempts to cheat on Catherine, but that’s shitty behavior, not necessarily abusive (later woven in as part and parcel of the abuse dynamic). He is also charming: his female students fawn over him. A white woman professor, Justine, says to George later that she doesn’t trust a professor whose students worship them. George responds by “playfully” forcing Justine into a violent game where he grabs her wrists and refuses to let go, insisting she wants to be caught. Point by point, the movie built an excellent, realistic abuser.

            Alright, cool cool cool, abuse is horror yes, but what about the ghosts? At first, Catherine is scared of the events in her house, but everything that happens around her seems to be leading her in the direction of learning more about the original inhabitants – and attempting to lend her support. After she finds a bible with a list of family names – and one scratched out, with the note DAMNED scribbled next to it – she learns of the pastor and wife who built the house. It turns out the wife was an early adherent of spiritualism, which the pastor condemned. She died under “mysterious” circumstances.

            A theme underlying the movie is that the spiritual and the physical are inherently connected. The school George is teaching at has a lot of proponents of a spiritualist scholar, who was mentioned in George’s thesis and was a major reason George was hired. Strangely(?), George could not really carry on a conversation about this scholar with the department chair. The department chair gives George a book by this spiritualist, which he discards at home. He doesn’t believe in what he does not hear and see – even if others hear it and see it.

            Catherine finds and devours the book, and ends up connecting with this department chair, who holds a séance in her house to connect to the ghosts. According to the aforementioned scholar (whose name I didn’t write down and I can’t find in a quick google search) and his proponents, everything in the spiritual world is connected to and affects the physical world, and vice versa. This tracks with Catherine’s experience, who realizes that the ghosts in her house seem to be educating her about and protecting her from George. She also realizes through the séance that there is another, malevolent, entity in the home.

            Soon, Catherine learns at a party that there are more secrets related to the house – and secrets related to her husband. The previous owners of the house were also a straight white couple – the man was abusive, violently so, and ended up killing his wife (with a knife or an ax) and himself by closing all the windows and letting the house fill up with gas. George knew, and in fact threatened several people to keep them from telling Catherine.

            This isn’t the only secret George is keeping – at the beginning of the movie, he mentions he won’t let anyone read his thesis because he is anxious about it – we slowly learn that he forged the letter of recommendation he put in his application, because his advisor would not write him one. In fact, his whole life seems to be forged. He tells a story about a cousin who died at sea whose journals he devoured: later we learn that paintings George had passed off as his own for years were his cousin’s.

            The movie devolves quickly, and infuriatingly. As Catherine realizes the extent of the isolation and abuse George has wrecked on her, George is doing everything he can to cover up his mountain of lies: first, bizarrely, he kills the department head who confronted him about lying on his application, making it look like an accident on the water (perhaps like his cousin?). When Justine confronts George as well, he follows her in his car and rams her car off the road. She ends up in a coma. George is offered the department chair position. Catherine makes moves to get out of the house – but George catches her. The most dangerous time.

            Gaslighting is a common theme throughout this movie – George constantly gaslights Catherine, and the ghost mirrors this by dimming and brightening the lights. Always, the fellow survivors (ghost women killed by their abusers) are there to affirm and amplify what Catherine is experiencing, while George mocks Catherine for thinking the house is haunted. This is also surely a reference to the original source of gaslighting.

            George is, simply, entitled white male mediocrity. George has never in his life created an original thing of beauty or intrigue; he is a parasite sucking off the life of marginalized people (his gay cousin, his wife, his Black advisor) and passing off their genius as his own. When he was confronted by the department chair about forging his admission materials, he insists that he merely wrote the recommendation he deserved, with no mention of why in fact he deserved this. It’s implied he didn’t even write the thesis he submitted.

            This movie gets more and more exciting until it collapses in a frustrated heap. George can’t keep killing off everyone who knows his secrets: he killed the department chair, yes, but only put another professor who knows his lies in a coma. Catherine also knows, and she is prepared to leave him to fester in his worthlessness: but then George sees the packed car, feeds Catherine a drugged smoothie, and runs off with their daughter. Later he fucking takes an axe to Catherine, murdering her, joining the other dead abused women in the house. What the entire fuck????? After he gets questioned by the police chief and he realizes the world is closing in on him, he steals a boat and seems to sail off into a storm, presumably dying there: the storm is the painting featured on the cover of the spiritualist’s writing his advisor gave him, and I assume that is supposed to mean something.

            But it is deeply, deeply unsatisfying. Infuckingfuriating. Ultimately, George was able to choose his own ending, while to the end Catherine never had any agency, except to deprive herself of eating. Maybe that isn’t quite true – she held seances, forced him to visit his parents, went to a women’s lib meeting – but ultimately she wasn’t able to escape his cruel hands. Not alive, anyway.

            Alternate ending: Catherine doesn’t drink the drugged smoothie. She leaves with her child (why is the child a non-entity in this movie), and just as George tries to stop her physically, the ghost grabs him and drags him away. Catherine escapes while the ghost slams all the windows shut, turns on the car engine, and George asphyxiates. Everyone believes he killed himself because of the shame of having forged his way into a professorship. A better, more satisfying ending that my friend and I wrote in like two minutes. Wtf directors. We don’t need more media where women are victims of men. That’s not educational or empowering. It’s boring, lazy, and probably even actively harmful.


            The title Things Heard & Seen reminds me of a theme of this blog, which is that which we fear exists in ourselves – true horror is being a complacent bystander to the violence around us and enacted in our names. Throughout the movie, multiple friends, neighbors, and colleagues recognize that something is wrong with Catherine, see red flags from George, but never intervene. How can we build a world where people are empowered to step in safely, without prompting more harm against the survivor? Right now we are socialized to ignore potential abuse no matter how worried we get. How many lives could be saved if that weren’t the case?


            But sometimes, survivors fight back, and win. To jog my memory, I read two reviews of The Power (2021, directed by first-time director Corrina Faith), and the one by the white dude missed the point so hard it doesn’t even deserve a clever metaphor. This movie is a slow burn – I was actually really bored at first, and wasn’t going to finish it, but after getting myself a whole pizza I decided fuck it, I’m too tired to choose anything else, and by the end I loved it.

            The Power is about a young white lower-class nurse, Val, who gets a job in a London hospital in the 1970s, when mining strikes are causing rolling blackouts. Class is an ever-present entity here, as is its cousin race, and the two intertwine: the hospital where Val works is a hospital for low-income patients, many of them people of color and immigrants. Staff constantly belittle and deride the patients, calling them “animals” and that they are responsible for their own misery. Val, sweet and naïve, is shocked by this behavior.

            Power has dual meaning here: the electrical power, which shuts off at night due to the strikes, giving a creepy ambience to an already unnerving hospital. It also refers to power dynamics: those between the (female) nurses and (male) doctors, the uneven hierarchy between the nurses themselves, and racialized, classed, gendered power dynamics. Val is mocked for both having come from the poor community and orphanage this hospital serves, and for supposedly making up a sexual assault accusation against a powerful man that she lived through as a child. Staff lament that Val “ruined that poor man’s life.” This trauma is also connected to Val’s fear of the dark.

            Val is punished by the head nurse for supposed insubordination when she deigns to answer the questions of an attractive and charming male doctor (“male doctor” is repetitive in this context, but I insist): punished by having her first shift be the graveyard overnight shift. Because of the strikes and ensuing blackouts, the hospital’s patients are moved to a place with power, leaving only the most vulnerable who cannot be moved: elderly people, folks on life support, and infants. A generator powers the few floors where these patients stay.

            As I said, the movie is a slow burn. There are creepy moments – a door creaks open on its own. Val smells unexplained ash in the air. But the frights aren’t really cranked up until later on in her first night shift – the entire movie takes place over just a couple days, mostly centered on this single night, minus flashbacks – when Val is forced to explore the hospital in the dark, without a flashlight (taken by a bully nurse).

            Of course, that’s when she encounters the ghost.

            And soon enough, is possessed by the ghost, in scenes crafted for real horror aficionados. Just like when she was sexually assaulted, no one believes Val about the ghost – who appears like a little girl. Turns out to be a former ward of the hospital and orphanage, who no one liked because she also “made up lies” and was dirt poor – hmm. In the possession scenes, Val takes a knife to herself and to the people around her, including a nurse who knew that little girl when she was alive.

            Once again, at first, we think to fear the ghost. But the truth turns out to be more complicated. The ghost possessing Val is a little girl who was sexually assaulted – then disappeared/murdered – by someone in the hospital. She is trying to get her revenge, and she is trying to warn Val.

            The ghost is also trying to protect another character, a young girl of color, Saba, who is taken with Val. Val was kind to Saba when other caregivers were dismissive or cruel to her, and when Saba was supposed to get moved to another hospital – with that charming male doctor mentioned previously – she hid instead, coming out in the darkness after everyone else had left for the night. Saba tries to warn Val and everyone of an evil in the hospital – and again, no one believes her (in part due to their racist reactions to her limited English). Saba, however, isn’t scared of the ghost, and she isn’t scared of possessed Val either, even when Val warns her to get away or she might inadvertently hurt her.

            Somehow, Val, Saba, and a lot of the others make it through the night (not at least one nurse who tried to run away and fell out a window, and not a sleazy maintenance guy who aggressively tried to sleep with Val – a possessed Val set him on fire). That morning, Val is confronted by her supervisor and some old white dude who is presumably in charge. She tries to explain to them some of the things she learned in the night – that a young girl was abused and probably murdered at the hospital. Val says her name – and the white man in charge says no one by that name was ever at the hospital. Val’s supervisor’s reaction tells us the truth.

            Everyone assumes Val is crazy – everyone always assumes survivors are crazy. She is left in the children’s ward by herself to – I don’t know, sleep it off? Saba is taken from Val, but leaves Val with her sketchbook, which Val looks through. She realizes through the drawings that the evil in the hospital Saba warned of – the entity she was so afraid of – is that twice mentioned charming male doctor. Who just took Saba away again. The clever, charismatic white male doctor, who has been getting away with raping and killing children in poverty, children he and others believe won’t be missed, don’t have any power.

            But guess who ends up having The Power in this movie?

            Val sneaks away from her ward and finds Saba. They try to sneak off together, but are caught by the abuser doctor. Val decides to sacrifice herself, telling Saba to get away, while Val leads the abuser doctor to the basement, to the furnace, where the ghost girl herself was murdered, by the same doctor.

            Here is where the movie takes a dramatic turn that positions it in opposition to Things Heard & Seen: Val is attacked by the doctor when she confronts him, and he tells her that no one will notice if she disappears forever (classic abuse tactic). Instead of him succeeding the way George did, however, Saba shows up. As does the ghost. Working together – literally screaming, using their combined voice – they kill that DAMNED doctor, and escape. By working together, by refusing to be silenced, by realizing their own power, they kill their collective abuser, and fucking survive.[3]

            Now that’s the kind of horror movie I’m trying to see. And hear.

[1] Traditionally, people in the United States who experienced abuse or a crime have been called “victims,” especially in the criminal legal system. Some folks find that disempowering, and choose instead the word “survivor.” I identify as a survivor and often default to that term. However, not everyone identifies with the word “survivor.” It is important to refer to people respectfully, which also means using the words they use to self-describe. Every victim, every survivor, is different.

[2] I’m irate about the eating disorder. I don’t understand why it was included – was it supposed to be the only thing Catherine controlled? How much she ate? It mainly serves as a plot device to deliver some good lines: “I wish everyone would stop blaming everything on how much I’m eating!” and “I’m throwing up this marriage, George.” Lines aside, I don’t know why this is part of the plot, and to me just serves to further pathologize the survivor.

[3] I believe it should go without saying that I don’t believe in the death penalty – for any person or any crime – and I believe in transformative justice, justice and accountability that exists outside of punitive, violent systems. However, this is a movie, and in a genre and culture soaked in the blood of women and survivors, where violence against women is just a plot device, I think survivors killing their rapist in a movie is radical. For more on the peaceful coexistence between the sentiment “Kill Your Rapist” and transformative justice, check out Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories From the Transformative Justice Movement, edited by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, especially “Vent Diagrams as Healing Practice” and “Every Mistake I’ve Ever Made.”

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